A review of The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, by Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer

Natan Sharansky has taken on two daunting challengers: the Soviet state and the Israeli voter. He has emerged bruised but proud from both encounters. Back in the USSR, he was a refusnik, a Soviet Jew who petitioned to emigrate to Israel but was refused, professionally marginalized, and persecuted. When he responded by becoming a leading spokesman for dissident Soviet Jews and a liaison to Westerners, he was accused of espionage and treason and sent into nine years of prison, isolation, and Gulag—events grippingly described in his prison memoir, Fear No Evil (1988). He was eventually released, and in Israel he became a leader and a parliamentary representative of the large, new Russian-Jewish immigrant community. In cabinets of both Left and Right, Sharansky has been a consistent hawk in a country under siege. Now, both he and his new book have been warmly received in America, including at George W. Bush's White House. From political prisoner in one country to cabinet minister in another and favorite of the president in a third, Sharansky has lived a remarkable, globalized life.

The Case for Democracy has two agendas. The first is to condemn one of the great moral failings of the past century and, still, of our time: the naïveté of many Western democrats in their dealings with dictatorships. Sharansky identifies two lapses in particular. Many Westerners mistakenly read the acquiescence of repressed people as evidence of their support or consent for their regime; these observers fail to appreciate that "freedom from tyranny is… universally desired." Second, even when they seek to democratize, many Westerners conclude that the best way to undermine dictatorships is to reassure, rather than confront, their leaders. In Fear No Evil, Sharansky reserved particular disdain for Westerners who believed that most Soviet citizens supported their regime, and who advocated foreign aid, trade, and the military build-down of détente, which he believes strengthened rather than weakened the Soviet state. Now as an Israeli, he has contempt for the parallel belief that Palestinians are culturally suited for corrupt authoritarianism as well as the parallel strategy of offering concessions (as in the Oslo Accords) to radicals.

In both cases, Sharansky powerfully skewers those who cannot see that citizens of non-democratic regimes are afraid to denounce and resist; and he persuasively argues that raising the costs to such regimes is much the wiser path. On each count, Ronald Reagan emerges as a hero for his stand against what Sharansky once called the "kingdom of lies." Nowhere is Sharansky more compelling than in his call for the "moral clarity" needed to distinguish the democracies' generally minor transgressions from the far greater evils of our age. This first goal is the less famous part of this book, but not for want of trying: fully 40% of its text is devoted to the ins-and-outs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past few years.

Sharansky's second and more celebrated goal is to argue not only that "all peoples desire to be free," but also that "freedom anywhere will make the world safer everywhere," and further that democracy can be successfully implanted in any setting. (He does not make the last claim explicitly, but his argument is meaningless without it.) He argues that non-democratic regimes inevitably inject insecurity into the international system. Because Sharansky believes that democracy pacifies the violent impulses of both individuals and regimes (though he never spells out why), he recommends placing democratization at the heart of national-security strategy. This explains why he thinks it logical—though some of his critics think it odd—that he champions a hard-line against radical Palestinian leaders while advocating more vigorously than do many on the Israeli Left a democratization of the Palestinian polity.

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Sharansky's is a plea to recognize every peoples' equal moral claim to freedom and to honor the persistence of human yearnings for it. This is a noble and ennobling message. But—here I tread carefully because I honor both that message and the messenger—this argument simply cannot serve as the basis for America's foreign policy. At the heart of this book stand two claims that are empirical, not moral, in nature and that therefore must be held up to appropriate standards of evidence. They fail to meet those standards. Part of the problem is that, for his evidence, Sharansky relies on the two cases he knows best, Russia and the Palestinian territories. These prove to be highly unrepresentative.

His first empirical claim, that non-democracies always destabilize the international system, is based on two observations. First, democratic countries are unlikely to be attacked militarily by each other (the "democratic peace" thesis), whereas non-democratic states are "inherently belligerent." Second, "the breeding ground for terror is tyranny," that is, the corruption and abuse inherent to non-democratic rule incubate the violent extremism that fuels groups like al-Qaeda. In this case, the problem with Egypt's dictatorship is not that its government attacks the U.S. but that it produces Mohammed Atta, and others, who do.

The evidence for these claims is mixed at best. Research on the "democratic peace" is easily misunderstood. It shows, for example, that the U.S. has basically never gone to war against a democracy; but this does not suggest that it has waged war against all that many dictatorships. Wars may be more likely between democracies and non-democracies, but these wars aren't especially likely, either. It is true that both the Soviet Union and Palestinian radicals— Sharansky's focus—have highly aggressive agendas. But his claim that non-democratic regimes are "inherently" belligerent is difficult to square with the fact that most dictatorships do not manifest military designs on democratic countries. It is symbolic, in this respect, that America in the 20th century shared its two famously undefended borders with democratic Canada and authoritarian Mexico.

The evidence is even scarcer that non-democratic regimes inevitably generate extremism among their citizens. Some may have, such as Nicaragua and Iran in the 1970s and Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian territories since the 1980s. But in Africa, Latin America, and East Asia, non-democratic regimes have not, as a general rule, generated violent extremism. Most of Western Europe's historic dictatorships incubated more moderation than radicalism, which is why many of them evolved peacefully into today's consolidated democracies. For that matter, well over a dozen substantially Muslim countries in Africa and Central Asia have so far not generated much extremism, despite durable authoritarian rule. Indeed, one of Sharansky's core cases doesn't support his claim: the USSR seems to have incubated apathy, not extremism.

This highlights a fundamental contradiction in the book. Sharansky argues that non-democratic regimes are doomed to see their citizens move increasingly in the direction of freedom. But a few pages away he argues that non-democratic regimes inevitably produce enraged and profoundly illiberal citizens who are easy fodder for radical recruiters. Which is it? If tyrannies produce not only Mohammed Attas but also Natan Sharanskys, then they must have effects far more complex than he suggests. To make matters worse, violent extremism has been bred, and sustained, in democratic Northern Ireland, and jihadis have found ready recruits among Muslims who are lifelong residents and even citizens of democratic Britain, France, and Israel.

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Ironically, if we want more reasons for skepticism on this subject, we need look no further than a 2003 Commentary article, "On Hating the Jews," by Sharansky himself. In it, he admitted that once upon a time he believed that dictatorship was the incubator of anti-Semitism in the USSR "and that democracy was the way to cure it…. Today I know better," he wrote, since democracy did not abolish anti-Semitism in Russia any more than in liberal Western Europe. Given the evidence, Sharansky was right to abandon his view that regime-type caused Jew-hatred; the evidence justifies extending the same correction to his thesis that dictatorships necessarily cause extreme hatred of the West.

Sharansky's second major empirical claim is, basically, that democracy is feasible anywhere. Although he never says this outright, his chapter on democracy's feasibility is entitled "Mission Possible"; he says repeatedly that "freedom truly is for everyone"; he assures readers that it can "acclimate itself in alien soil"; and he does not identify a single obstacle to its implantation in any country, at any time, other than an existing tyranny and its "true believers," whom he considers to be a small minority that dwindles relentlessly with time. Sharansky eloquently condemns the moral and cultural relativism which
suggest that "certain peoples are incapable of democratic self-rule or have no desire for it." In contrast, he declares, "I am convinced that all peoples desire to be free." He has a name for those who doubt this: "freedom's skeptics."

To stretch this moral stance to answer what are ultimately empirical questions about democratic feasibility is to advance an exceptionally thin case. He reaches his rhetorical height when he proclaims, on this note, "not only that all people are created equal but also that all peoples are created equal." For his book to make sense, there must also be a hidden third clause to that sentence: he must also be saying that all historical situations are sufficient (equally sufficient?) for sustaining democratic decision-making processes over time.

It seems uncontroversial to respond that some conditions favor stable democracy and others disfavor it. After all, non-democratic regimes have been prevalent throughout human history and endure in many places, and some conditions must explain this, even if we join Sharansky in rejecting ad hoc cultural explanations. Yet he does not discuss a single factor that, for example, imperils the stability of democracy in a given country at a given time. He is said to have told President Bush that democratizing Iraq is crucial, but will be difficult. But which conditions, exactly, make it difficult? He does not give us even an idea. Though such a question might sound pedantic, it is not: the answer is highly consequential. If certain conditions are inhospitable to democracy—for example, if government is so weak that it can't effectively protect individual rights—then achieving stable democracy in a country where those conditions obtain will likely require substantially altering them. Such change might be easy, but it also might not be. It could be achievable through large-scale influence by Western countries, but it also might not be. And for the moment, we don't even know which underlying conditions we're supposed to be manipulating. The original neoconservatives would be the first to advise that trying to use government policy to achieve social transformation on that scale should be a project of considerable caution, study, and—even then—experimentation. It is not enough merely to issue a blanket call to just do it, now!

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Consider a parallel. For decades before and after World War II, economic development experts and activists dismissed claims that any nation preferred poverty or was unsuited for economic growth and prosperity. They argued that Western countries should help spur growth through foreign aid, technology transfer, training, and so on. With time and bitter experience—and in keeping with the prescient warnings of such conservatives as Edward C. Banfield and P.T. Bauer—it became clear that neither wanting growth nor offering assistance was sufficient to cause growth, and that real growth required certain preconditions, such as the rule of law, which we do not know how to cause.

Sharansky is right to say that no country or culture should be assumed to be permanently non-democratic—any more, we might say, than any society should be written off as permanently poor. But it would also be right to say that not all situations are conducive to democracy, even as they are not all conducive to prosperity. This is not surprising, since both industrial economies and stable democracies are forms of order that rest on certain foundations. Pointing this out makes people neither "growth's skeptics" nor "freedom's skeptics."

The peculiar way that Sharansky approaches democracy may explain how he avoids engaging these issues. In The Case for Democracy, he almost invariably discusses it in terms of personal liberties, especially the right of free speech. There are two problems with this. First, merely enforcing such liberties requires the presence of effective state structures. These are present in many contexts but elusive in many others, including Liberia, Sierra Leone, the former Zaire, Afghanistan, and perhaps Iraq's "Sunni triangle." If stable democracy requires these structures, how might they come about where they are currently absent? Can the U.S. do much to help?

Second, democracy does not stop with these liberties. Free speech is usually what economists call a "non-rival" good: one person's use of it does not diminish its availability to others. But democracy also involves reaching political decisions, and when one party or coalition controls government, others are necessarily excluded, at least temporarily. Many democracies have produced decisions (such as expropriation) that so profoundly threaten the core values and interests of the current minority that the latter will support coups which protect some of its values (property) at the expense of others (civil liberties). This is roughly what happened in Spain in 1936, in Chile in 1973, and in Haiti in 1991. In each case, sizable segments of the population supported non-democratic regimes that they saw as the lesser of two evils. In such contexts, stable democracy is unlikely unless these underlying conflicts are resolved. But how does such resolution happen? And what exactly should the U.S. do to help? The sobering fact is that social scientists really do not know.

Sharansky, like Joshua Muravchik and others before him, reminds us that dictatorial abuses remain a moral stain on our world and urges us to push at the limits of the currently feasible by setting our sights on the global expansion of democracy. It is surely true that there is no reason for Americans to be indifferent to regime-type when a democracy is within reach; there is every reason for us to want democratic reformers to become the future leaders of their countries; and there is little wisdom in America being identified with vicious dictatorships doomed to be overthrown. Then again, given the limits of our knowledge, it is also true that worldwide democratization is a project quite possibly of many generations and that, in the meantime, it calls for experimentation and pragmatic deal-cutting with dictatorships that we may well have to live with for a long time.

The good news is that U.S. policy since 9/11 looks a lot like that. Elections have been urged peacefully on several regimes, but force has been used against only two, and the Bush Administration has worked successfully with many dictators in the war on terror. We are pushing at many limits, but are feeling our way. A dictator of Mexico once explained his complex choices by saying that his country was so far from God, and so close to the United States. America's margins of maneuver are greater than ever before, and much greater than Porfirio Diaz's ever were, but we, like him, remain closer to the ugly realities of political variety than to the cosmopolitan ideal of harmony. The journey toward the latter is the noble task that Americans now confront. But nobility alone is still not a winning strategy.